An Ode to Sewing by Hand

28 September 2022

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I’ve spent decades longing to sew and, for most of that time, I have placed obstacles between sewing and me. The biggest one was believing that I needed a sewing machine to do it. Of course, I knew that sewing was part of human history long before the invention of the sewing machine, but for ages I was convinced that I didn’t have what it took to sew by hand. This has changed, and, if you feel drawn to sewing, I hope I can help change that for you too. What did I think was necessary for hand sewing that I didn’t possess or couldn’t acquire? Two things, mostly: patience and skill.

In my mind, there had to be specific, probably complicated, techniques I would have to master to be able to sew strong, durable seams by hand. A part of me believed that, unless I had been taught as a child by a master sewist and had practiced for all of my life, I could never become skillful enough to make garments that would last. I’d sewn on a few buttons and done a few repairs, sure, but I always felt like I was doing it wrong somehow. I’d never felt confident that whatever I could do with my own hands and a simple needle would hold. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I started seeing crafty friends tackling big sewing projects by hand. For example, one of them made a tailored shirt, from start to finish and with beautiful topstitching, in only a few days. Moreover, they were doing it by choice, between other projects for which they used their sewing machine! That got me intrigued. Around the same time, creators such as Bernadette Banner and Morgan Donner started sharing videos documenting their work reproducing historical clothing using historically accurate tools and methods. More and more resources and tutorials for those techniques subsequently appeared on my radar. This all helped me realize that sewing by hand might not be the drawn-out, tedious process I imagined it to be, nor was it rocket science after all, and learning it was within my reach. Having become genuinely curious about hand sewing, I finally understood its advantages:

Simplicity
While sewing machines are wonderful tools, they can be finicky. Troubleshooting tension issues is not my idea of fun, nor is dealing with all the other ways that the thing just won’t work the way you want it to.

When I sew by hand, I’m good to go as soon as my needle is threaded!

Hand Sewing Tools Josiane Richer Dit Laflèche

Efficiency

Sewing often involves a lot of un-sewing. One reason for this is that it can be easy to zoom through a long seam on a machine before realizing that, say, a piece was assembled the wrong way out, or the bottom thread misbehaved. Hand sewing’s slower pace increases the odds that I’ll notice if something is wrong long before completing the seam. I also tend to baste rather than pin pieces together (sewing by hand is more pleasant when not handling a porcupine!) and basted pieces make it easier to check that I have everything positioned correctly before I start on the seam. In the end, I may spend more time sewing overall, but less on ripping out and re-doing seams.

Portability
I appreciate not being constrained by the location of my sewing machine. A hand-sewing project can be taken anywhere, making it possible to work on it whenever I have a spare moment and wherever I happen to be at that time.

Tactile Pleasure
Taking pieces of a fabric I love and seeing them come together into the envisioned object can be one of the most pleasurable parts of the process. The balance between the preparation work (pattern tracing, cutting, adjusting, etc.) and the actual sewing feels better to me when I sew by hand: I get more time to savour the joy of handling the beautiful fabric I have chosen and delight in its transformation.

Sustainability
Creating slowly lets me craft to my heart’s content while also limiting my output. This is a good thing as I choose not to make more than I need, and what I sew is made to last.

Satisfaction and Empowerment
I get profound satisfaction out of having made every single stitch that turned a length of fabric into a unique, wearable piece that fits me perfectly. Also, knowing that I can fulfill my clothing needs with my own hands, using as basic a tool as the humble needle, is incredibly empowering.

image description: a woman, partially turned away from the camera, is sewing on a piece of fabric with needle and thread, she has a thimble on one finger

I recognize that my ability to use my hands to sew is a privilege, one that I don’t take for granted now that arthritis is taking hold in one of my fingers. But for as long as I am able, I’ll relish exercising the power that a tiny needle and some skills place into my hands. If sewing is calling to you and your hands are up to it, I’m here to say: It’s within your reach. I’d love for you to experience the sense of empowerment that I do when I sew by hand.


If you’d like that too, please stay tuned! I’ll be back in the coming months with two tutorials on the basics of hand sewing, and a project that will make use of those skills.

In the meantime, here’s a short resource list should you want to get started exploring:

Books:

Videos:

Sewing tools photo by Josiane Richer dit Laflèche; other photos by Éric Gauthier.

Copyright © Josiane Richer dit Laflèche except as indicated.
Josiane Richer dit Laflèche – 1

About Josiane Richer dit Laflèche

Text and textile are the main threads that have run throughout Josiane Richer dit Laflèche’s life and they, along with neurodivergency and disability (ME/CFS), have had the biggest influence on the shape it has taken. A linguistic anthropologist by training, she works with words––both hers and those of others––in various ways, including in her capacity as the agent of writer and storyteller Éric Gauthier. The rest of her time is divided between reading, spinning, sewing, weaving, knitting… and learning other fibre and textile arts! Josiane is currently channeling her interest in language and culture into crafting a podcast that aims to provide listening practice to people who are learning French or who want to maintain their knowledge of that language. Learn more at yourfrenchspeakingfriend.com. She lives in the N’dakinna, the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Waban-Aki (Abenaki) Nation, more specifically in Kchi Nikitawtegwak—the name given by the W8banakiak to the city otherwise known as Sherbrooke, Québec.

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